I said last week that I might think about nuclear power this week as the latest contribution to what has become a mini-series on future fuel and propulsion ideas.
In response to an earlier comment, team leader of process design at Finland’s Auramarine, Kimmo Henriksson, emailed me to wonder why there is so little discussion about nuclear power. He stressed that his question did not mean that either he or Auramarine were advocating nuclear-powered ships; he was raising it as a discussion point and asked a straightforward commercial question: although the capital cost of such a vessel would be huge, would operational savings cover those costs over its lifetime?
I am not aware of any study that has looked in detail at the operating costs of a genuinely-commercial nuclear-powered ship but the evidence I have seen suggests the answer is ‘No’.
First, capital costs: Russia’s 38,226 gt LASH/Container ship Sevmorput cost US$265M to build, Wikipedia tells me, and was in service from 1988 until 2007, when it went into layup in Murmansk. But it was reactivated in 2016 (I don’t know what that cost) and is still operating in the Northern Sea Route.
Second, operating costs: I don’t have figures but against the lower fuel cost must be set the maintenance and ultimately disposal costs. I cannot find any reference that suggests that any of the four nuclear-powered cargo ships built so far have been a commercial success. And then there is the environment: at least two of those ships – Savannah and Mutsu – both initially leaked radioactive material.
But nuclear-powering has been explored relatively recently. In 2010, Lloyd’s Register, Enterprises Shipping and Trading, Hyperion Power Generation and BMT formed a consortium to examine the marine applications for small modular reactors.
And in 2013 I interviewed Lloyd’s Register’s then lead specialist in LR’s Strategic Research Group, Spyros Hirdaris, who suggested then that in the long term – perhaps by 2040 – a modern battery-like nuclear reactor could be installed on a commercial vessel.
But Dr Hidaris left LR in December last year and is now working on other topics at Aalto University in Finland while LR is no longer actively working on nuclear ideas.
So it is only the Russians who are currently acquiring knowledge about nuclear ships. There are their icebreakers, of course, and Sevmorput. In addition, in April a floating nuclear power plant was launched in St Petersburg. It is due to be completed and fuelled in Murmansk from where it will be towed to Pevek, at the eastern end of the Northern Sea Route and the most northerly town in Russia, where it will go into service in the middle of next year, generating enough power for a town of up to 100,000 people. Construction of a second is due to start next year, too.
So, to return to Mr Henriksson’s question as to why there is so little discussion about the nuclear option. As well as the commercial aspects, he wondered whether politics comes into it or whether some are deterred from exploring it for fear of its impact on their own reputations.
Without going into details, the brief research I have done in preparing these remarks confirms his second point: there is concern among some researchers about how any work they might do on nuclear propulsion would be viewed by later employers.
Personally, I think nuclear propulsion options will be developed for future generations of autonomous ships. That will not be in my lifetime, but we do have experience from icebreakers and naval vessels to understand the technology. There is much to do on cost and environmental factors but, especially for applications where refuelling would be difficult, it must be an option and that big red button must be pressed.
• What do you think? Does nuclear power have a part to play? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org